The day Furman baseball died: Players, parents recount the emotional ending to program
May 18 started as a normal day for Dax Roper. The Furman University senior baseball standout completed his morning workout and was getting ready for the day when he received a text from coach Brett Harker announcing a team meeting at 2 p.m.
COVID-19 had cut the 2020 season short, and with Roper and his teammates looking ahead to 2021, he assumed it was just another team meeting. The school had been closed because of the coronavirus, and players had returned to their homes. Those who were not local were asked to participate via a Zoom video conference. Roper, an Upstate native and Belton-Honea Path High graduate, was close enough to make the drive.
Shortly after entering the meeting room, he realized his normal day was anything but.
"At about 2:03, I realized this isn't our traditional team meeting," Roper said. "I saw numerous staff members from the institution there, different personnel who had never been there before. (Athletic director) Jason Donnelly was taking count, making sure everyone from our team was present.
"He proceeded to tell us that the institution had to make the difficult decision to release two programs to financial reasons. We had to find new homes. Our coaches found out the same time we did that they didn't have jobs anymore.
"It was definitely tough."
Furman announced that because of the financial implications of COVID-19, the school was discontinuing its baseball and and men's lacrosse programs. In addition, school officials cut the salaries of the president and senior administrators, implemented furloughs and enacted budget reductions.
Silence swallowed the room as those within it and those watching the video feed from their homes around the country absorbed the news that the program that played its first game on March 24, 1896, had played its last.
Harker struggled to find any words. When he did, he asked for school officials to leave the video call so that he could hold a team-only meeting. Roper sat speechless.
"You could see through the emotions that it was completely unexpected," Roper said. "Emotions hit hard initially. I broke down. I can't remember the last time I had broken down like that."
Like Roper, Harker is an Upstate native. A 2002 Hillcrest High graduate, he began his coaching career in 2011 as an assistant at Greenville High. His entire staff is from the Upstate, and their vision of building a local college program disappeared without warning.
"I am born and raised in Greenville, never looked at any other job postings," said Harker, who had joined the Furman staff in 2014 as pitching coach and became head coach in 2016. "This was my plan. This was my assistants' plan. We wanted to stay and grow for a long, long time.
"It was emotional for everyone, including Jason Donnelly, who is my friend. Our family's all in on this program and university. So to hear that was difficult, but it was nothing compared to having to deal with the players and how they felt."
The announcement in Greenville sent shock waves as far as Oakland Township, Michigan, the hometown of freshman infielder Jack Chermside. His family had recently discussed the announcement three days earlier that Bowling Green (Ohio) State University, located about 60 miles from their home, had eliminated its baseball program.
"We actually had a conversation about it in our house," said John Chermside, Jack's father. "Really surprising, Mid-American Conference school and a big school. ... Would that ever happen at Furman? And the consensus for us was 'absolutely not.'
"I didn't even know about the call. My wife and I were not notified. (Jack) came down the stairs and said, 'There's no more baseball at Furman. I don't want to talk right now and I'll talk about it later.' "
Those within the program have experienced every emotion in the days since the announcement. Harker, who still views himself as the head man, has tried to lead the program now more than ever.
"It's been a very trying time, full of emotions and trying to figure out what's next," Harker said. "There's been some sleepless nights but trying to stay task-oriented. There's so many layers to this."
"Immediate shock and gut-wrenching emotions for your family turns into trying to do what's best for the players and finding them homes."
Searching for new homes
Stunned by the death of the program, those within it didn't have a long time to grieve. Their focus had to shift to their futures. The school's administration gave players the opportunity to remain at Furman, which said it would honor existing scholarships. For almost every player, staying at Furman but not playing baseball was not an option.
Players have used social media to post highlights and statistics in hopes of gaining interest from other colleges. The task is increasingly harder given the circumstances.
"I've received numerous calls, but the thing is there's 2,000 guys in the transfer portal because of things going on," Roper said. "Figuring out financials when there isn't really any. ... It's been crazy."
Coronavirus has created a logjam for college baseball rosters 2021:
►After canceling the spring season, the NCAA on March 30 granted another year of eligibility for every spring sport athlete affected by coronavirus, meaning many players who expected to leave their programs received the chance to play another season.
►The NCAA has three times extended its traditional "recruiting dead period," most recently to July 31, preventing on-campus recruiting.
►Major League Baseball has reduced its 2020 draft of amateur players from its normal 40 rounds to five. So instead of 1,200 high school and college players being selected, there will be 150.
These combined factors drastically limit the opportunities for players hoping to move from one program to another. Harker and his staff have faced challenges in trying to find homes for 35 players.
"Obviously pitchers are always in high demand," Harker said. "Position players are different because you only need so many third basemen, second basemen."
Roper was on track to graduate this spring. After he was granted another year of eligibility, he dropped two classes in order to remain academically able to return for the 2021 season.
"I'm figuring out the next step when I didn't think there'd be a next step," Roper said. "I thought everything lined up to come back to Furman, and now I'm considering moving across the country to play baseball."
As academic transcript deadlines loom for colleges, many families feel they have to make quick decisions under duress. For younger players like Chermside, the challenge is to find a new home after only one year on Furman's campus.
"It's been pretty stressful. To go through this process last minute is challenging," he said. "The coaches (at other schools) don't really know you, haven't seen you play. Then there's the other factors.
"I've looked into every option: four-year schools, junior colleges and post-grad programs. The problem with junior colleges is because since we've done a year at Furman we can only do one year at a JUCO, then it's the same thing over again."
Several players have found homes, including some in Furman's 2020 recruiting class who had to restart their process from high school over again.
"Making the contact is easier because it's fresh. That's the one positive," said Dave Kesler, father of Ben Kesler, a 2020 signee from Richardson, Texas. "Ultimately the answers haven't been different. We get very nice emails back, quick responses from head coaches, recruiting coordinators, which is great, but there's not much they can do.
"While they're interested in talking to Ben, fall of 2020 is almost a non-starter because they don't have full rosters, they have bloated ones. They probably have to go back and make some tough decisions with their own players."
A 30- to 40-day timeline feels like hours to players and their families as they scramble. Harker has had tough conversations with Paladins about their future and potential sacrifices, including dropping down from Division I baseball or to schools with less academic rigor.
"Furman is a high academic institution, and these guys were planning on getting their degrees from there," Harker said. "How much are they banking on continuing to get a degree that can come close to Furman? It makes for long conversations, and when you have that many kids, it keeps you and your staff busy."
Each player has been forced to prioritize quickly what's important to them to make the right choice, to not select a school just to have a roster spot.
"I don't have two years, three years, left. I only have one," Roper said. "I'm looking to play early. Financials is definitely a factor for me, and opportunity is just as important."
Like the players, Furman's coaches are also searching for new homes. So far, the phone calls have been few and far between, which is fine for Harker -- he said his main focus is on the players.
"A couple offers here and there that are much smaller than Furman," Harker said. "That's the least of my concerns, to be completely honest. There's 300 jobs in the country. If a Division I job opens up, the world will know, so it's not like I need to be posting my resume and scouring the internet."
"If I don't do that, then I'm obviously staying in Greenville and using my connections in being here 35 years and using Furman's alumni. The tricky part is finding 35 guys and 10 incoming guys homes."
Keeping hope alive
A little more than two weeks after they lost their baseball program, the players and coaches are still scrambling to pick up the pieces. Even though they're separated, they remain closer than ever.
"From a teammate standpoint, there hasn't been a day that's passed where we haven't talked," Jack Chermside said. "Those guys are my brothers. Going through something like this, everyone wants to lean on each other."
"The coaches immediately went on to helping us find the next place. Conversations with them have been a lot of me telling them how much I appreciate them and how thankful I am."
Older players like Roper who were leaders on the team haven't relinquished that role. In addition to encouragement, the top players on the team have been campaigning via social media for their teammates to get noticed by other colleges.
"Younger guys are reaching out asking about offers and advice about what they should do," Roper said. "I'm trying to help them find opportunities. I'm still paying my dues to these guys because they're my teammates and I'm doing everything I can to better their situations."
The parents have tried to rally around the program as well. Linda Kelly, the mother of freshman outfielder Mason Kelly of Mattituck, New York, started a petition in support of reinstating the program. The petition has surpassed 10,000 signatures after an initial goal of 7,500.
Recently, the newly founded FU Baseball Alumni Association, a 501c3 and LLC, held an event at Fluor Field to bring program supporters together. This past Friday, a three-man group represented the association in a meeting with university president Elizabeth Davis and other school officials.
"It shows that what we thought we were doing as a program, we were headed in the right direction," Jack Chermside said. "We really were making an impact on the community and nationally. People don't want to let this program go."
Time is passing quickly. As players are starting to break off in their separate directions, the fight to save Furman baseball is ongoing. Roper hopes that the lasting memory of Furman baseball is a positive one even if baseball never returns.
"Coach Harker and every coach had the entire group in mind with every decision," Roper said. "They really worked to change the culture, and I hate we didn't get to shine through and see what we were made of.
"Coach Harker preaches 'leave it better than when you found it,' and I can attest to that aspect that we definitely left it better than we found it. I was blessed to play a small part."
You can connect with Kennington Smith on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com